CARSON, Calif -- Bob Bradley calls them "starting points." They are the attributes possessed by some of the 25 players he called into a recent training camp that might give them a future with the U.S. national team.
Some starting points were harder to see in the U.S.'s 1-1 draw with Chile on Saturday night at the Home Depot Center: Tim Ream's composure under pressure, a turn or two from Mikkel Diskerud, Zach Loyd's grit. After watching those players, no one was screaming "future World Cup starter," but they were small signs that those players could be useful down the road.
And then there was Juan Agudelo.
The 18-year-old Red Bulls striker has made only two appearances with the national team. He tallied a goal against South Africa in November, and on Saturday he entered the match in the 60th minute and along with fellow striker Teal Bunbury changed the game. Agudelo drew the penalty kick that Bunbury finished for the U.S. goal, and he was inventive and dangerous in his 30 minutes.
Agudelo got a rousing ovation when he came on -- Bunbury's reception, in contrast, was a whisper -- and afterward he mugged with fans longer than most of his teammates, soaking it in. He didn't act like a player who was at a starting point, but rather a professional in full bloom.
Like most of Bradley's phrases, "starting points" was deliberately chosen; it emphasizes the work left to be done as much as the promise. Agudelo, like the others, has much to learn. But U.S. fans starving for reasons to be optimistic about the team's attack have watched him make an impact in two consecutive games, and have swooned. They overlook the fact that his debut goal came against a South African side that was the first World Cup host not to advance out of group play. They fail to note that the Chilean side he scared in the second half Saturday was, at best, that country's "B" team. They forget that in his Red Bulls career Agudelo has started two games.
From Freddy to Jozy to Juan they have passed the label of "The Future." Deserved or not. Ready or not.
I have criticized Bradley for failing to promptly integrate young players into the national team pool. He also has shown too much loyalty to limited talents (Robbie Findley, Rico Clark, etc.). But Bradley's constant cautioning over the last few weeks that Agudelo has a ways to go and his decision not to start the young forward on Saturday were the correct calls.
"As you work with these young guys in camp, you see the potential," Bradley said Saturday. "[But] there still are little things that need a lot of work."
Bradley needs to keep making statements like that, and he needs to do whatever else he can to tap the breaks on the hype machine. He should leave Agudelo out of the U.S. squad for month's friendly at Egypt, and forget starting him against Argentina in March. (In both matches I would start Jozy Altidore as team's lone striker, and use the 20-year-old Bunbury as his backup.) Some may view this as hindering Agudelo's development, but just as two good games don't ensure future success, missing one of two matches won't doom him. It will, however, slow the ludicrous calls for him to be a starter (over Altidore) when the full senior team gathers this summer for the Gold Cup.
Managing the expectations of fans might be one of Bradley' biggest challenge over the next 18 months. The U-20 World Cup this summer in Colombia is going to bring to the forefront players like Fabian Huerzeler, Josh Gatt, Sebastian Lletget and others. Then comes the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, when many of those U-20 players and some better known young prospects (Diskerud, Gale Agbossoumonde, etc.) will be put under the spotlight.
Some will shine. Others will sink. But what they do in spots won't have that great an influence on the national team in the short term, and thus their success and failures shouldn't lead to Adu-ish anarchy.
In games that Bradley sees as a must-in, such as the contests in this summer's Gold Cup, we are likely to see a familiar starting lineup. Stuart Holden should play more than he did at the World Cup, and Jermaine Jones is a possibility, but a young player like Agudelo is almost certain to be on the bench, at best.
Fans shouldn't be upset when that happens. They should see an 18-year-old player with a lot of talent but limited professional experience on a Gold Cup roster and take that as a positive. It is, to reuse Bradley's phrase, a good starting point.